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More Than Words uses books to boost foster teens

The Boston-area nonprofit employs troubled teens to run online and storefront bookstores while also teaching them life skills.

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    Jodi Rosenbaum founded More Than Words to help youths in foster care or otherwise under state supervision. The online and storefront bookselling operation offers teens a job as well as training in life skills.
    Courtesy of More Than Words
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From working with child advocate attorneys to serving in Teach For America, Jodi Rosenbaum had spent the majority of her career with children, many of whom were in foster care  or state care.

While each position afforded her some unique perspectives, one element became constant throughout her more than 18 years of work in child welfare, juvenile justice, and education: the aggravation she developed while seeing how many young people fell through the cracks.

“I got really frustrated, really disappointed with what I was seeing in the system,” Ms. Rosenbaum says.

In particular, she was struck by the obstacles faced by teens in foster care, youths who were part of an overburdened system with few, if any, advocates in their lives.

“So often these young people would wind up in trouble, and locked up,” she says. These programs often exacerbated issues the youths would face, and the teens often received harsher penalties than their peers who were not in foster care.

Her response in 2004 was to launch More Than Words, a Boston-area nonprofit online bookselling and training program for youths in state custody. It has since expanded to open bookstores in the suburb of Waltham, Mass., in 2005 and in the South End, a Boston neighborhood, in 2011.

Rosenbaum made the connection between books and helping foster children after a friend of hers was walking home from a graduate school class and found a pile of books someone had thrown away. Curious, her friend searched for the value of the discarded books online – a process that was simple, quick, and easily yielded some extra cash.

“Young people could do this,” Rosenbaum recalls thinking. “That’s when the idea got embedded in my head – and my heart.”

After a year of learning more about the online book industry, Rosenbaum began a partnership with a group home, setting up a 150-square-foot office and working with young men in the program to teach them how to process and sell books online.

“It was an incredibly rocky startup – they didn’t really like books or computers,” she says. “What they did like was the incredible amount of power they felt when the books sold. They were making something happen, [and] I think the tangible feeling of work was incredibly concrete and something to really latch onto.”

Today, More Than Words works to empower youths who are in foster care, involved in court cases, homeless, or out of school – mobilizing them to run a burgeoning business.

The program includes a component through which teens work 20 or more hours a week earning the minimum wage (with opportunities for promotions and raises) and help manage and staff online and retail bookstore operations. Another component, which More Than Words calls “the YOU job,” focuses on helping the teens to develop the life skills they need, offering lessons on everything from banking to housing, mock interviews, and résumé building. Participants also receive two years of follow-up support and evaluation.

More Than Words continues to grow and evolve. It currently takes in some 1.6 million books a year through a network of collection bins and pickups. In the past fiscal year alone, the efforts of the teens yielded roughly $650,000 in revenue – a 21-percent increase over the prior year. Rosenbaum forecasts that the organization will surpass $750,000 by the end of its current fiscal year.

Last year alone More Than Words helped more than 250 young men and women – and seen some impressive results. Fifty-six percent of participants receive their high school diploma or high-school equivalency tests and continue on to some kind of higher education. More than 60 percent of program graduates are employed. That compares with a 20 percent employment rate for all low-income minority teens in Massachusetts.

Rosenbaum continues to explore ways to expand operations and involve more youths. It is networking with state agencies and others to find ways to expand the More Than Words model to more cities.

• For more information, visit www.MTWyouth.org.

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